The invisible man is a novel published in 1952 by writer, literary critique and novelist, Ralph Ellison. The invisible man addresses the social issues as well as the intellectual issues that most Africans-Americans faced in the early twentieth century, including Black Nationalism, politics, and the relationship between black identity and Marxism. It is set in the 1930s, in a small town in the American South. The “invisible man” is not invisible.
Idea of the novel
The invisible man takes us through the African- American experience in the turbulent political and social times in the 1930s. The issues that are powerfully addressed in this book are those that are still relevant in the modern world. They are issues like our very own struggles with personal identity, and the need to be seen and recognized in a world that is figuratively blind, as well as racism.
In the narrator’s generation, the young man we accompany on his journey, represents, to this day, the lives of many young African-American men. His dreams of racial elevation through being humble and by working hard, as taught by his school, land him in trouble.
His uncorrupted idealism is slowly shattered and disenchanted. The duplicity and deceit of his schools’ teachings force him to move away to a bigger town, New-York, in search of freedom and truth.
Detailed plot of the book
The narrator starts by describing his standard of living. He is in an underground space that is riddled and lit with wired electric lights. He explains how he has experienced social pressure and invisibility on an unfair scale.
Going back to his teenage years, in a small southern town, he graduates high-school. On his graduation day, he gives a speech that impresses a white man. After his graduation, he is given a scholarship to an all-black college. However, the award comes with strings attached, very offensive strings. He must take part in an aggressive fight with another African-American man. Blindfolded and put in a ring, he fights for the amusement of rich, white dignitaries in his town.
While in attendance at the college, Mr. Norton, a wealthy white trustee, is visiting the college. The narrator has the opportunity to chauffeur him around. He chauffeurs Mr. Norton around the campus and the old slave-quarters.
By pure coincidence, they run into Jim Trueblood, a man who has caused quite a stir. He has impregnated his wife and daughter, all while being asleep. This account horrifies Mr. Norton.
The narrator then goes to a bar to settle Mr. Norton’s nerves with a drink. The bar they go to is a place with prostitutes and mental patients. A fight ensues, and Mr. Norton is injured in the chaos.
The narrator is expelled from his college by Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college, on account of the injuries Mr. Norton sustained. He is, however given recommendation letters to help him find work and maybe one day re-enroll at the college. The recommendation letters are sealed.
The narrator cannot seem to find work when he moves to New-York and distributes his recommendation letters. Of all the recipients, the son of one of the recipients shows the narrator the recommendation letter. The recommendation indicates the deceit Dr. Bledsoe has perpetrated. The president of the college has no intention of ever accepting the narrator at the college again.
The narrator gets a job at a local paint factory, but the chief attendant Lucius Brockway tricks him into setting off an explosion that lands him in a mental institution.
Mary Rambo takes in the narrator and offers him shelter. She is a kind and old-fashioned woman. The narrator, later on, makes a speech that insights a crowd to attack police officers who are evicting a black couple.
This puts him in the sights of the “brotherhood”. Jack, the leader of the brotherhood, offers him a job, making speeches at rallies. All goes well until the narrator finds out the brotherhood is not what it seems and has no interest in the problems of the black community. During protests and unrests in Harlem, the narrator finds himself in an underground coal bin, in defense of his life. He is sealed in and left to think about the racism he has encountered in his young, albeit unfortunate life.
Problems of the text
While this book articulates the problem of democracy in a society that was racially segregated, we do not know if it can speak for the democratic ideology that exists in our post-civil world. The invisible man leaves us, no character who is left with moral integrity. And it leaves us to wonder if it is possible to retain our integrity in the current world while dealing with different characters of different people.
The efficacy of the novel is brought into question due to the minor roles assigned to females. Ellison has created a sex line, with white women being portrayed as the “forbidden fruit.” There is also a racial line brought out by the writer. It is probably intentional to facilitate the differences between black and white women.
Description of main characters
- The Narrator. He is the “invisible man” of the novel. Though he is intelligent, he considers himself invisible because no one sees his true self. He is only seen in a stereotypic racial and prejudiced way.
- Mr. Norton. A narcissistic rich, white man who treats the narrator like a count on his register, to prove that he is liberal-minded. He is fascinated by Jim Trueblood’s incest.
- Jim Trueblood. An incestuous man who is considered a disgrace to the African-American community.
- Dr. Bledsoe. A selfish and ambitious man who declares he would rather lynch every African-American man in the country than lose his position of power. Considering he is also African-American, it is hypocritical.
- Brother Jack. A white man who is the leader of the brotherhood. He claims to be a voice of the oppressed but is racist and only sees people as tools.
- Ras the Exhorter. He opposes the brotherhood and frequently insights riots in Harlem.
- Tod Clifton. An intelligent member of the brotherhood who later leaves the group to sell sambo dolls to mock the “slave” picture that dolls represent.
- Reverend Homer Barbee. A blind preacher who visits the narrator’s college and makes satirical comments about the vision of the college’s founder.
- Mary Rambo. A kind and old fashioned woman who takes the narrator in and helps him with his identity issues.
- Rinehart. A character who takes many identities and who speaks the subject of “invisibility.” His role represents freedom and possibility.
- The veteran. The only character who seems to speak the truth and tries to expose the narrator’s college for its ideology.
- Emerson. Reveals the deceit of Dr. Bledsoe to the narrator by showing him the content of the recommendation letter.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” In the end, the narrator ponders, “I am an invisible man, and it placed me in a hole or showed me the hole I was in. And I reluctantly accepted the fact”.